Sammies finalists are harnessing technology to help the public

One team of federal agents led Medicare investigations that resulted in more than 600 convictions in South Florida, recovering hundreds of millions of dollars. Another official boosted access to burial sites for veterans across the country. And one guided an initiative to provide safe drinking water to 5 million people in Uganda and Kenya.

These are some of the 33 individuals and teams of federal employees nominated for the 13th annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, among the highest honors in government. The 2014 finalists reflect the achievements of public servants in fields from housing to climate change, their work conducted in Washington and locations as far-flung as Antarctica and Alabama.

The finalists, who will be honored in Washington this week by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, have improved health care for paralyzed veterans, enhanced ambulance safety, protected investors from fraud, and used civil rights laws to help abused and exploited workers, among other feats.

Many of them have excelled in harnessing new technology in ways that are pushing the limits of what government thought was possible even a few years ago.

“You have a lot of stories here about ways people in government are using technology to serve the public better,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive.

Michael Byrne of the Federal Communications Commission, for example, put detailed data about broadband availability in the hands of citizens and policymakers using interactive online maps and other visualizations. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Douglas James Norton made water quality data that had never been public available on the Web for citizens, scientists and state agencies.

The finalists will be recognized Tuesday at a breakfast, part of Public Service Recognition Week, which observes the contributions of civil servants in local, state and federal government.

Seven “Sammies” medals will be announced in September in categories that include homeland security and law enforcement, citizen services, national security and international affairs, science and environment, and management excellence. A federal employee of the year will also be chosen.

The Washington Post spoke with three of the finalists.

As project manager in the safety research division of the National Insitute for Occupational Safety and Health, James Green noticed some alarming statistics: Ambulance workers get injured in crashes far more often than the rest of the population, with a rate 21 / 2 times as high.

Because of their size, ambulances fall outside most crash safety requirements, with no seat belts and few restraints required on the cots, cabinets, seating and other equipment that help transport patients in emergencies.

Green worked with the industry to study the problem and received funding from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“We were able to go to the industry and say, ‘We’ve identified some areas for improvement. Would you work with us?’ ” Green said.

The results are new safety standards for the patient compartment and other parts of the ambulance, and more are coming.

Ambulances “have the potential to touch every American in one way or another,” said Green, who is based in Morgantown, W.Va.

At the Smithsonian Insitution in Washington, Günter Waibel, Adam Metallo and Vincent Rossi managed the unthinkable, using 3-D imaging to scan some of the museum’s treasures for viewing on the Internet.

The Wright brothers’ first airplane, life-mask casts of President Abraham Lincoln’s face, a 1,500-year-old Buddha sculpture and Amelia Earhart’s flight suit can now be viewed online, rotated, downloaded and recreated with a 3-D printer.

“When we capture an iconic object, we think of the 3-D model as something you can look at before you visit, after you visit or if you can’t make the trip,” said Waibel, director of the museum’s digitization program office. “We can tell the story in a different way and engage a different audience” — most likely a younger one than the audiences for brick-and-mortar museums.

At any given time, less than 1 percent of the Smithsonian’s 137 million items are on display. The goal is to make 10 percent of the collection accessible online through digitized photos, text and audiovisual files.

Since the project launched in November, more than 20 objects have been transformed to 3-D formats. Now Waibel and his colleagues are ramping up to bring on more objects, faster. “We’ve basically established that this can tell us a very engaging story,” he said.

In Boston, forensic accountant Sofia Hussain is using technology, too, to help investigators crack insider trading, market ma­nipu­la­tion and accounting fraud for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

She’s found a niche in collecting and interpreting electronic data to help build cases, working with investigators to develop models and algorithms to identify trends and patterns in private companies’ financial statements. The idea is to spot irregularities and investigate cases faster.

In one case, Hussain’s analysis of bank records and wire transfers uncovered a scheme that tied investor money to a $500 million Ponzi scheme. The SEC charged hedge fund manager Francisco Illaramendi of Connecticut in the securities fraud and secured $230 million held in an offshore account for return to investors.

Hussain recommended a software that allows SEC investigators to determine if callers from different numbers called the same phone line. She has also helped investigators gather subpoenaed data — in particular, bank and brokerage statements — electronically.

“Technology is helping us organize our information more efficiently,” Hussain said, “so we can mine and analyze it.” She said the techniques range from simple to complex.

“But the key is to find anomalies you couldn’t necessarily find by sorting through the material by hand,” she said.

The Sammies winners will be chosen by a committee that includes leaders from government, universities, the private sector, the media and the philanthropic community.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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